Be careful what you wish for

John’s book, The Influence of Teachers, is currently available on Amazon; you can learn more about it at the book’s official website, or, if interested in buying copies for your class or discussion group, you can consult this page.

I have a simple request for my left and right-wing friends: “Be Careful What You Wish For.” Here’s why I say that. I know right-wingers who lust for vouchers, and I know left-wingers who live for the day when all children will have ‘individualized education plans,’ a la those in special education.

The latest call for vouchers comes from the Republican Governor of Pennsylvania (whom I do not know), but let’s imagine how vouchers might work. Suppose that the voucher (basically a check that parents could take to the school of their choice for their child’s education) was actually worth enough to buy a decent education, say $12,000. Just imagine how quickly that would attract scoundrels, scalawags and crooks, all posing as committed educators. Even cheap vouchers will attract an odd crowd, men and women who feel a calling to do some God’s work. And, unfortunately, there will be no shortage of parents who will drink the Kool-Aid (which is more of a comment about how bad some public schools are than it is about the parents’ gullibility).

And since the right-wingers want vouchers to be valid currency at religious schools, expect a flood of new schools — and maybe some new religions too.

But that’s actually not my big worry. We live in a society that protects religious freedom, and so all sorts of already-established religious institutions will be eligible for voucher-paid students. Be ready for a church school that teaches snake-worship, because those churches exist.

But you also should be ready to see an Islamic madras open in a neighborhood near you, perhaps one that preaches that Islam rejects violence and suicide bombers — or perhaps preaching and teaching that America is the source of evil in the world.

You voucher supporters don’t get to apply a litmus test here. Hand out the vouchers and get out of the way: that’s the way it will work.

Be Careful
As John says...

(Milwaukee voucher advocate Howard Fuller told me that his city has avoided those religious traps by having strict rules for participants, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Milwaukee’s low dollar figure — about $6,000 — has a lot to do with the non-participation of zealots. Double the money, and they will come.)

As I say, “Be Careful What You Wish For.”

Now to my left-wing friends and their desire for ‘individualized education plans’ for all children, an idealized vision of schools that focus on the needs of each child. An end to cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all education.

Wake up, folks, and take a clear-eyed look at Special Education, the birthplace of the IEP. For every IEP that has actually worked out, I am willing to wager that an equal number are in some sort of litigation. I say that because special education has turned into a cottage industry for lawyers, who have discovered that school districts are bureaucratic nightmares, often unable to walk and chew gum at the same time. So when a district cannot meet the precise specifications of an IEP, bingo: a lawsuit, which often leads to private school for the kid.

So if my left-leaning friends got their way and we had IEPs for all, that ‘cottage industry’ of lawyers would be transformed into a ‘mansion industry.’ But I doubt if very many others would benefit, including the kids.

As I say, “Be Careful What You Wish For.”

The fascination with panaceas afflicts left and right. I stand pretty much square in the middle, as do, I suspect, many of you. So here’s what I would like to suggest: A new narrative for our conversations about public education.

Right now our conversations and debates focus either on teachers (“Do we have enough good ones, and how can we get rid of the bad ones?”) or on accountability (“We know that test scores are flawed, but they’re the best we have, and we have to have accountability, don’t we?”). The ‘teacher’ narrative is demeaning to the profession, for openers. The ‘accountability’ narrative ultimately justifies the status quo of cheap tests, a dumbed-down curriculum and, often, widespread cheating.

The narrative I propose addresses education’s inconvenient truth.

Which is this: “There is close to a 1:1 correlation between parental income and educational outcomes, whether the parents are rich, poor, or somewhere in between. Kids with rich parents do well in our education system, and kids with poor parents do poorly. On one level, that seems to mean that schools basically do not matter. Only money talks.”

“However, we know that’s not true because we have in front of our eyes hundreds of examples of schools and teachers that do change lives.”

“So do not be mad about schooling’s failure to dramatically improve the lives of all 15 million children living in poverty. Instead, let’s insist that our schools imitate the successful places, people and practices. We should demand to know what’s keeping educators from imitating success. Eliminate the obstacles and — here’s where you should get mad — get rid of the educators who refuse to be copy-cats.”

If you saw our PBS NewsHour piece this week about schools in rural America, you know that the challenges facing schools are growing. With unprecedented numbers of children in poverty (a growing number of them homeless), public schools will be forced to step up to the plate even more than usual.

And so, ignoring my own advice, here’s what I wish for: We abandon the search for magic bullets and instead copy what successful schools — and successful networks of schools — are doing.

21 thoughts on “Be careful what you wish for

  1. You’re the one imposing the “IEP’s for all” agenda on the “left.” Not to say that some people aren’t in favor of this, including a lot of the current “reformers” and administrators who I would not consider “on the left,” but it is not a platform plank of, say, the Broader, Bolder Approach or Parents Across America, for example, who I would consider the leaders of the response to business-model school reform at this point.


  2. Beating a dead horse here — what do we want as an outcome? Answer that first. You can’t even tell if a school is doing a good job if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

    Read many of the posts by honest TFA members in dreadful environments and you’ll understand quickly that what works in Howard Co. MD doesn’t probably stand a chance in DC, only 30 miles away. The needs are totally different, and perhaps the goals should be as well. In some schools, having kids show up or not fall asleep might be counted as success.

    That being said, the idea of copying schools seems a good one provided that you have similar populations with similar goals.


    • I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but it seems to me that students who know how to think for themselves, who have been taught by teachers who have authentic understanding as their primary goal, are going to be better off in the long run than students who are just directly taught to memorize the facts and figures needed for the next test-even if those who teach for understanding don’t appear (at face value) to “cover” as much curriculum in the course of a year. More information is available now than any of us will ever be able to hold inside our own heads! What’s important today is that the student know where to find accurate information when it’s needed, and how to tell if it’s accurate or not–and how to connect new information to what they and other people already know, so that they can use it to solve real-world problems.


      • I’m not sure if you intended to respond to my post, perhaps re philosophy?

        This way of thinking is rather popular at the current time. It eschews “memorization” for “understanding,” assuming that the resources are available to obtain needed information when required.

        There have always been those who believe in memorization for its own sake — witness spelling bees and the new craze of memorizing digits of pi. Some teachers have occasionally fallen into this trap with dates in history or mathematical formulas with no connection to the events associated with the dates or the usefulness of the formulas. But this is not the norm, and hasn’t been the norm for a long, long time, if ever. Saying that students need to learn for “understanding” provides little extra in terms of a philosophy – understanding of what? And the idea that we can teach students how to tell if information is accurate seems a little simplistic. Sure, we can all agree that people aren’t usually purple and anyone saying otherwise is spreading misinformation, but most of the real thinking that one does is essentially the process of deciding what makes sense to us based on what we already know.

        Part of learning _is_ acquiring knowledge that is in the encyclopedia, observed with your own eyes, gleaned from a math text or discovered in a scientific paper. Without background that such knowledge provides, you have no basis for which to doubt, assert, compare, formulate, imagine or extend much of anything. And it’s these thoughtful actions that allow one to solve real-world problems, or just wonder more thoughtfully about one’s life and the world in which it is lived.

        Imagine a discussion about capitalism with someone who has little knowledge of banking, money creation, relative wealth, availability of opportunity, psychological motivations, alternatives economic philosophies, properties rights or economic rent. Sure, they can spend some time learning about all those things on the Internet, but you still have to learn _something_ before you can do the real understanding and have a worthwhile conversation. Just saying “I think…” with no background isn’t an exhibit of an educational success.


  3. Might the litigation in the special-ed area occur because parents have rights under law? Where something like an IEP is simply a policy of the school would ‘litigation’ really be a concern?

    Have you looked at schools that do put all students on individualized learning plans? I could show you some. You’ll be interested in their effects. Call me.

    Have you considered that digital electronics might imply individualization? A clear potential of the software is to let students move at their own pace; faster through the material or more slowly. So might this technology as it develops in effect put all students on IEP? Would that represent a negative, for achievement? Or a plus?


    • If individualized education plans are the equivalent of legal contracts, beware–that’s what I am saying.
      I am all in favor of individualization, of teachers knowing their students well, of allowing students to work alone or in groups and to move at their own pace.
      I had breakfast this morning with a friend whose sister has been assigned to ONE kid for the past five years at a school in Vermont. The kid is not noticeably disabled, my friend said, and in fact performs ‘normally’ on tests, et cetera. But he has that IEP and a good lawyer, and maybe an incompetent or overworked school administration too.


      • It is tragic that wanting the best for one’s child should be a source of derision. A single teacher should be assigned to a single student because (where the teacher is effective and the superstructure is flexible) that is generally a more effective method of instruction than what is available in the classroom. Everyone should demand the best education possible for their children even (or especially) if that means exploiting a corrupt system. All the power to the people that can pull this off. Why should anyone want anything less for their kids? This is not about fairness, since there is nothing fair about any part of schools.

        The lawsuits that ensue are a result of the inherent paradoxes of the doctrine of social efficiency. The objection to individualized attention is based on a tacit acceptance of this flawed doctrine.

        Litigation is not a bad things when it is used battle injustices.


      • In the real world of public education and special needs children, litigation is generally not a good thing. The federal law that mandates services pays a small fraction of the cost of those services, putting schools in a hard place.
        I believe we need teachers whose gut instincts and training lead them to treat each child according to his needs and abilities. I don’t think a paper trail of intentions and commitments is required or desirable, because that leads to litigation and wasted resources.


      • While, naturally, no one wants litigation, litigation when used for a just cause is desirable and necessary. Justice will not prevail otherwise. There should be consequences to improper treatment of children and to avoid culpability by not establishing what constitutes abuse seems perverse to me.


      • It is not true that there is a one to one coorelation between academic performance and income. The real key factor is CULTURE. The children of the poverty striken Jews from eastern European did extremely well is school. The children of poor Asian immgrants out perform most American born white students. The children of parents from some West African islands also do well in school. The reason the children of these sub cultures out perform average American students is that in these cultures the most respected man is the most educated man–the Rabbi and the confusian scholar!!!


      • I agree! When I taught in an urban, “underprivileged” school, I saw firsthand that when it was an accepted part of the culture of a family to place a high value on education, and the adult/s in the home genuinely respect teachers, and other educated people in the community- enough to seek and/or follow their advice- then regardless of the family’s income level, the children in the family absorbed the same values. Though I also observed that by middle school, those values were easier for students to stand up for if they’d been regularly and positively reinforced by at least one other person outside their home too-an influential teacher, coach, or minister, etc.


  4. For every IEP that has actually worked out, I am willing to wager that an equal number that prompted a fear of some sort of litigation – even though surprisingly little litigation has actually happened.

    In my experience, whenever we seek reality-based policies for schools where a third or more of students in regular classes are on IEPs, with most involving conduct disorders and not learning disabilities, the Special Ed department replies, “There are two types of systems, those who’ve been sued and those who have not yet been sued.” When probed, our department acknowledges that it has not been successfully sued, for instance, for enforcing rules on violent and chronically disruptive students on IEPs, but they have been successfully sued by parents of IEP students who were victims of IEP students that the district had not disciplined. The reason for the discrepancy, I suspect, is another problem with the liberal version of accountability. Settling lawsuits is a cost of doing business for systems (including noneducational systems) but losing ONE case would be the end of each INDIVIDUAL career. Whenever you hold individuals accountable for the sins of the system, you are inviting a culture of compliance.

    While we’re criticizing our liberal friends, I’d add another unintended result. Whenever we teachers offer reality-based proposals for Title I, we are told, “Yeah, but what if some 25 year old accountant does not approve.” Then we hear of some horror story that might have occurred years before in another district.

    My reaction to both the IEP and Title I stories of regulatory overreach have often been skeptical. Most of the IEP cases cited have been cases so extreme that I figured they were outliers. But have you been been reading the Title I-derland blog? They have been recounting the absurdity of the regulations to make sure the title money isn’t supplanted. When reading their recent accounts, I could understand why our district has been so cautious. I can understand why nobody who understands the system wants to risk his or her individual career and as a result pushes the decisions down to principals who are not in a position to know what would be approved or rejected by an auditor. So, of course, we leave 1/7th of our Title I money on the table and waste large amounts on safe CYA professional development spending, and after-school remediation.

    And that gets to another similarity between IEPs and Title I. If all schools had a manageable percentage of students operating under those rules, then those rules might be reasonable. But when an inner city school has to coordinate services and obey complex rules regarding the vast majority of its students (as in the case of kids needing remediation because they are four or five years below grade level) paralysis is predictable.

    And the series helped me understand our district’s protest to a noneducator, twenty-something auditor, when the administrator protested, “our district is 90% low-income! Even if we’re completely incompetent, by accident we’ll mis-direct less than a suburban district.”

    And not to change the subject to a quibble. We should demand that all educators copy cat. But we should not demand that educators copy cat things that the people from 30,000 feet think are “best practices.” “Reform” has meant that the suicidal micromanaging that produced such an extreme culture of compliance for IEPs and Title I.


  5. Oh, John. It’s a rainy, chilly day in Boston and irony and iconoclasm reign. Your dismay at “solutions” denies what I think are three variables, critical to academic success: (1) The Common School, where we learn to like each other; (2) The memorable moment, when an inspiration lights the bulb behind the eyes of a kid; and (3) “positive deviance” where we build on good stuff wherever we find it and encourage those who deviate from the norm to achieve it. The simple polarities ‘twixt vouchers and cum-bye-ya ignore these central thematic solutions.

    The Common School (yes, Horace Mann’s) was critical to creating America and remains the only real justification of free, universal, tax supported education. If we don’t learn to know, like, and work together we might just as well have abandoned immigration about 200 years ago. We did learn that once, and seem to have forgotten it in the rhetoric of a mechanistic change system. Good schools teach kids to teach each other, and that’s a basic Mann Maxim. They don’t have to cost a lot of money, and there can even be some “bad” teachers around who kids learn to manipulate. That’s part of the lesson.

    Memorable moments are the joyous anchors of teaching and learning, and, ultimately the things that get us up in the morning to face – or look for – another day. So few of us remember more than three or four events from – for example – grades three or six or Freshman English – that any teacher who produces more than six we think is a master. Probably true, but a pretty low threshold from the teacher’s side. I had a lovely high school senior sitting next to me suffering through an automated English course the other night. She was muttering that the recorded, online English teacher could make anything boring, and Lady Macbeth seemed to be like one of those “nattering nabobs of negativism.” I first asked how many days of 6th grade did she remember. She paused, and said, “Three.” I then had her read some of the words of Lady Macbeth aloud. She cried, not a lot but in sympathy. That led to a discussion of the time I taught teachers with all the lights out in a dark room, provoking one nice young pre-teacher to tears. Sweetly, I asked what she intended to teach. When she said “art,” I said, “oh, my dear, you should think about what teaching art in a dark room might mean!” From this she fled in moister tears. My student smiled, and I pointed out that that ed class will probably be a lasting memory from an otherwise un-memorable ed school experience. My student laughed aloud, at least until I noted that she’ll probably remember Lady Macbeth with a little more context for the rest of her life.

    Finally, those “positive deviance” folk at Tufts ( are worth a look. If we just find a few of those hooks from which we can scaffold ad hoc curriculum that captures kids’ empathy, school is a worthwhile experience for kids, community, and teachers. It means we have to watch and listen before we prescribe any of the canned solutions. While it’s nice to have options in our pocket (like vouchers-for-a-day), or it’s good to tune discussions to individual kids (like Lady Macbeth), it’s critical that we find the “teachable moment” in every class and exploit it for all the best it can accomplish. Enough of those make all those other metrics moot. And that is our real goal.


  6. I think, John, that you make many good points here as usual. But I also think that vouchers and IEP-style plans are just proxies for what people really want.

    On the right, conservatives want more choices in where families can send their kids to schools. This accelerates market-based change and hyper-localizes educational power to the level of the individual household — about as far from Washington DC as it can get.

    More compassionate conservatives really know that what kids need are not good schools per se but good teachers. They would like kids, especially disadvantaged kids, to have the best shot at having a few more good teachers than they do now as the move up through the system.

    Folks on the right know, just as we all do, that the distribution of teaching talent is extremely uneven. So they would like to counter that reality by changing the distribution of kids so that more of them had equal access to good instruction.

    On the left, liberals don’t want IEPs, they want their children treated as individuals. They want “the system” to recognize that their child is a unique human being and not a dot on a graph of test scores being served up a standardized curriculum and impersonally egged on toward minimum competence.

    Not surprisingly, these two ideas: the desire for competent teachers and the desire for kids to be treated as individuals have been the common themes in parent surveys for decades. People feel the same way about coaches, babysitters, doctors, and dentists.

    Left, right, or center, most people want exactly the same things from education: competent teachers and humane treatment for children. That we have consciously or unconsciously built a system through reform that fails to include the mechanisms required to secure either of these things is where the current mania for vouchers and IEPs is probably rooted.

    Of course, our previously unreformed system didn’t provide these things either. But back then, we didn’t have so much policy in play — and so many players to play it. All parents had were their basic desires and the hope that these desires would be fulfilled somehow. Now, with ed reform policies front and center, more people want to use them, however inappropriately, to get what they want whether those policies were created to deliver on their desires or not.

    Parents of today are justifiably angry that their voices have been ignored for a very long time. They’ve latched onto the idea that policy is how big things get done. Vouchers come from existing policy that redirects funding; individualization can be had through existing mechanisms like IEPs. People are smart and parents are especially tenacious about advocating for their kids. If the system doesn’t provide what they need, they will seek to circumvent it — in this case by using aspects of the system inappropriately to accomplish their goals. But, as you point out, vouchers and IEPs (especially when scaled up) have serious downsides, and even the upsides are highly imperfect.

    Vouchers don’t really help kids get good teachers because they don’t address the underlying problems of talent density and distribution. IEPs don’t really work at all — even for the special ed kids they were intended to serve — because detailed planning is ill-suited to the rapidly changing nature of child development and human learning.

    The problem with vouchers is that the supply of good teachers is thin. The problem with IEPs is that making a detailed plan for any dynamic growing individual fails to account for the dynamism and growth we are all aware of but hate to acknowledge because it is difficult to apply at school when the supply of good teachers is thin. Kids change so fast that it is far more helpful to be able to respond to change than it is to make elaborate plans. This is primarily why IEPs fail kids anyway, as does most detailed teacher planning.

    So, yet again, we’re right back to the obvious and logical problem of how we increase the quality of teaching in our schools — preferably in ways that increase the density of teacher talent and distribute it more evenly throughout the system. Sadly, we have yet to put in place any reforms that directly address this issue.

    TFA didn’t come out of a government reform. And it doesn’t even solve the problem because it only brings into the system a small number of smart people who might potentially become good teachers for very short periods of time. But TFA is probably the best example of how some people have tried to address the fundamental issue of teaching quality. And, again, it didn’t come about via policy or legislation (thought it is now partially funded and protected by policy and legislation).

    I think you’re right to bring these issues up. But I also think their roots are much simpler than most of us realize. When we think of our kids we think we want policies to make certain things happen. But our desires are not easily sated by policies because the things we truly want cannot be operationalized through political mechanisms. Hence the misapplication of policy that is at the root of failed reforms in all societal sectors — and where state’s rights folks derive much of their energy for tanking everything federal (except the military, of course).

    When we think about what we truly want for our kids, it’s pretty easy to know exactly what that is: a good teacher in every room and each child to be educated in accordance with his or needs needs and affinities. Policy cannot achieve this; only cultural change can make this happen. Historically, policy and legislation usually follow cultural change, not the other way around — Roe v. Wade notwithstanding. This is not rocket science; nor is it even political science. It’s just common sense, human nature, and the limitations of the political process.

    The big cultural changes that have occurred around reform are these: Most policy makers and politicians now believe that all kids should have competent teachers and that all kids have different needs and affinities which deserve to be addressed.

    Prior to the 1960s, we were happy to ignore large groups of our own citizens entirely. Prior to the 1980s, we were happy to ignore kids with special needs. But as of 2001, when NCLB sprung up, we began a dialog about “leaving no child behind” and in that moment, what parents have always wanted was articulated (however imperfectly) into federal law.

    At that unique point in educational history, we made a political commitment to educate all children at last to some undefined minimum standard in two subjects. This was a very modest goal, especially now that we know how low most states set the bar.

    But people within the system decided that this could not be accomplished and — not surprisingly — succeeded in failing. Now the new “waivers for all” approach has validated that self-fulfilling prophecy. So, once again, we see that political mechanisms don’t really get the job done even when they are squarely focused on doing just that.

    As I’ve said, policy and legislation can’t operationalize what parents really want. The question for the future, then, as I see it is this: “What mechanisms are available for us to create the cultural change that addresses these essential issues?”

    For example, how can we change the culture of teaching so that teachers themselves can take responsibility for increasing the distribution and density of competence throughout the system? (HINT: Raising teacher pay is not the answer because pay does not produce talent and people who would be attracted to education for higher pay would quickly move out of the classroom to other, even better paying positions.)

    Or how can we change the culture of accountability so that it shifts from its current highly externalized form emanating from the federal government to a more powerful and permanent individualized form emanating from living rooms and dinner tables? (HINT: Increased parental choice is not the answer because without a higher density and more even distribution of talented teachers, choices will be so limited as to be meaningless.)

    At the core of our problem is the paucity of reforms we have been pushing for almost thirty years now. Testing, standards, charters, vouchers, merit pay. That’s all we’ve had and that’s all we’ve got. This has naturally encouraged people to try to use them in as many different ways as possible (or to waste their time opposing their use). The true failure of education reform in our country is a failure of the imagination. We can’t see beyond our own limited vision of what we think education is and how we think it might be changed.

    The alignment of policy to purpose will always be imperfect. Not everything we want can be captured accurately in law — and people tend not to follow laws they don’t like anyway as we have seen with NCLB.

    But we can make a better effort to understand the current state of the system by spending more time actually working in more schools with an eye toward what it would really take to improve them (without the obvious prejudicial limits of our current five-reform filter). We could also think more clearly about what we want for our own kids and thereby come to better understand what all parents want for theirs.

    Steve Peha
    Presdient, Teaching That Makes Sense


    • Steve, when you say “Prior to the 1960s, we were happy to ignore large groups of our own citizens entirely. Prior to the 1980s, we were happy to ignore kids with special needs. But as of 2001, when NCLB sprung up, we began a dialog about “leaving no child behind” and in that moment, what parents have always wanted was articulated (however imperfectly) into federal law,” you reveal your true colors. You, and the people you identify yourself with (by using “we”) felt this way. Others — on the true “left” — did not. Never did. That it took you and yours so long is your own problem.

      The current reforms are not rising from the bottom — survey data clearly shows people are largely satisfied with the schools their own children attend. But instead are being whipped from above by public relations and propoganda.

      What the Republican Party wants is to pay lower taxes. Period. Full Stop. You might notice this is their solution to every problem. Republicans and corporate Democrats want to smash the teacher’s union. How many people would support a plan to reform education — if it was 80% likely to work — that would increase spending by 20% and strengthen teachers’ unions?


    • Lots of sense in these paragraphs. I agree that IEPs and vouchers are proxies, and we ought not to settle for proxies.
      Re choice, I hope you will see John Tulenko’s piece on choice in Indiana, which should be on the NewsHour next week. As the piece makes clear, in that Republican-led ‘reform,’ choice means that the suburban schools also get to choose which of the city kids they will accept. No longer are public schools open to all, not in the ‘burbs.
      Goodbye, common school???


  7. John, did someone commandeer your blog and write this?

    Kidding, just kidding..

    Warning this is a pretty long comment.. You obviously got me thinking.. And I apologize in advance if it is a bit stream of conscious.

    I’ll try to respond to some of the arguments and concerns you’ve just offered to lefty and righty friends…

    Quick aside. Growing up, and sometimes to this day, my father playfully calls me a “pinko”… and yet former coworkers in a previous job called me the “token Republican” in the office…

    So for disclosure, I’m not sure how well I fall into said lefty and righty categories…

    I am someone who favors school voucher policies — not believing in utopian outcomes, but leading to practical (and meaningful) improvements in reallocating more power and leverage to parents and families, and minimize the present-day disproportionate power of special interests.

    “Suppose that the voucher (basically a check that parents could take to the school of their choice for their child’s education) was actually worth enough to buy a decent education, say $12,000.”

    >>> First, what I would say is that of the near 200,000 kids participating in voucher programs, a very very tiny handful of students actually see a voucher near this amount.. I mean this number might be in the hundreds nationally, at most, and these are special needs kids.

    So what you speculate in your post, in the real world, is never going to come to happen. Believe me. The PA example you gave caps the voucher amount to 75% of state per-pupil funding, so the max in the highest spending districts might be $6,000 to $7,500, around Milwaukee’s voucher amount.

    To be real about this, here is a general rule based on existing programs and state policymaking risk-averse habits… a voucher amount will likely never exceed 75-80% of state per student funding (special needs kids a sometime exception).

    So in today’s world, we will not see vouchers worth more than $6,000 or $7,000… But that amount will cover most private school tuition at K-8 level, and about half to three-fourths at the high school level. So it’s not chump change. But it does require either some investment by a family and/or accepting school.

    “Just imagine how quickly that would attract scoundrels, scalawags and crooks, all posing as committed educators.”

    >>> There are no “scoundrels, scalawags and crooks” out there today in voucher-less areas, in either the public or private schools? John, but on what evidence is there to suggest that speculation? There are already a small minority of “scoundrels, scalawags and crooks” in K-12 and higher education, and may indeed attract to easy money

    BUT who’s to say that either getting money through bureaucracy and overt state and special interest politics, or through a more customer/parent-driven marketplace will produce more scoundrels. With proper safeguards in place, I think either will have some bad actors but those remain rare exceptions.

    “Even cheap vouchers will attract an odd crowd, men and women who feel a calling to do some God’s work.”

    >>>> We have not seen a lot of new religious schools start as a result of any voucher system. And the ones that do, tend to be outgrowths or new campuses of existing schools.

    “And, unfortunately, there will be no shortage of parents who will drink the Kool-Aid (which is more of a comment about how bad some public schools are than it is about the parents’ gullibility).”

    >>>> Parents have more flexibility and options with a voucher, right? That’s not really drinking the Kool-Aid, is it? That’s common sense and family interest.

    School choice systems — and I include charter schools in this case — provide necessary accountability to parents (not just boards or bureaucrats)..

    Where is the accountability to parents in a regular public school/district setting?

    Besides voting in a school board election on a Monday in the middle of July (obviously exaggerating) or voicing concerns at a school board meeting from 4-6pm on a weekday (not that big of an exaggeration)?

    For all intents and purposes, there is no accountability (or other leverage) given to average parents in average school districts. No one reports on this, and no one talks about this (ie. Education Nation)

    “You voucher supporters don’t get to apply a litmus test here. Hand out the vouchers and get out of the way: that’s the way it will work.”

    >>> For better or worse, all states have regulations and rules in place for private schools that will address some of your concerns here. And then the voucher laws tend to add even more regs and parameters on top of existing private school codes.

    I say this respectfully, John, but a lot of the things you suggest in your post do not reflect what is going on in programs in place today (26 around the country…) or come anywhere close to reflecting what is being proposed in state legislatures and by governors.

    “For every IEP that has actually worked out, I am willing to wager that an equal number are in some sort of litigation.”

    >>> I’m no expert on special education, but I’d bet the house that this is definitely not the case.

    “So when a district cannot meet the precise specifications of an IEP, bingo: a lawsuit, which often leads to private school for the kid.”

    >>> First, a special needs voucher program eliminates the lawyer-as-middle-man phenomenon you say results from IEP disputes. And you make it sound a lot easier than it is in reality for parents of special needs kids to “win” private school tuition. It’s not easy for families, and it is exceedingly rare when this happens. The “system” has huge deterrents in place to prevent parents from pursuing a litigation.

    “An end to cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all education.”

    This is going to happen in the next 10-20 years, whether by advances in learning technologies (with teachers expert in those technologies…) or more policies that promote “back-pack funding” through vouchers or education savings accounts (to all schools – public and private). The transformation will probably occur by way of some combination of technologies, market competition, and voucher (or voucher-like) systems..

    “The fascination with panaceas afflicts left and right.”

    >>> If we interview advocates on the left and right and ask point blank: “Are vouchers or IEPs a panacea?” I would be shocked if anyone would declare such a statement.

    What I would say is this..

    Reasonable K-12 policies — school vouchers and IEPs — open doors for families.

    If looking through the eyes of a parent or student, these policies are both a necessary and often sufficient condition for improvement. Seriously. This is what we see.

    These policies are necessary for giving more power and leverage to parents in K-12 education’s body politic. What are substitutes for giving parents the same kind of power and leverage? I’m not aware of any other educational policies that transfer as much REAL political power to parents and families.

    Does anyone else know any others?

    I would say school vouchers are a necessary condition for improving schools, either in terms of student learning or responsiveness to families, or both.

    “There is close to a 1:1 correlation between parental income and educational outcomes, whether the parents are rich, poor, or somewhere in between. Kids with rich parents do well in our education system, and kids with poor parents do poorly. On one level, that seems to mean that schools basically do not matter. Only money talks.”

    >>> To some degree you are right. But I would say this.. Most of what we know about the connection between parental income and educational income occurs within the current school district/school board/state funding formula-style educational system.

    Do school vouchers and new learning technologies help level the playing field? Early evidence, at least wrt vouchers and scholarships, is positive.

    “However, we know that’s not true because we have in front of our eyes hundreds of examples of schools and teachers that do change lives.”

    >>> And we need to be considering ALL schools, not just those that are called public schools.. otherwise we may be missing some great practices and innovations out there, right?

    We are all in this education thing together. We need to include and pay attention to what is going on in private schools, which represent roughly 1 out of 5 schools in the country, teaching more than 5 million kids.

    When are we going to seriously acknowledge parents/guardians as the second most important stakeholder in K-12 education? (behind students obviously) I can’t wait for that day to come.

    Consider the volume of reporting we do on teachers, unions, reformers, boards, and school leaders, all as generalized groups.. and the miniscule attention we give to parents and families as a general group. Parents and families are relegated to anecdotal status in the current public debates… political, punditry, reporting/blogging, or otherwise.

    I guess I’ll just end by saying I don’t believe a new narrative can happen unless this changes.

    We need to do a better job respecting parents and families as a major stakeholder group in policy and reform debates.

    Very provocative post, John. Keep up the good work.


  8. Education today is like aviation before the Wright Brothers: there appears to be no model that works to meet the core goals of the field. Thus we have the equivalent of people jumping off cliffs with big duck wings.

    John, you are right that we need a new narrative. But it’s already out there. The real problem here is that the press simply isn’t doing its job and finding the existing models that work and that can banish the duck wings. It’s basically malpractice. You, John, are way ahead of the NYTimes, WashPost, Atlantic, et al in that you have identified the problem.

    The starting place for the new narrative is a simple question: What would happen if we gave teachers the tools they need to succeed? Starting here leads to a vision of schools that work – and there are plenty of them. Why not do a series on this narrative? It’s desperately needed.

    BTW, vouchers would be a disaster, as you so articulately state. But Broader/Bolder and other status quo movements are just as much of a disaster – they have their own duck wings. And IEP’s are a symptom of a system that is broken. None of these are necessary in the new narrative.


  9. In the future I envision, we will still have places called schools and children will go there, but after that, all bets are off. Students in Berlin NH and Berlin Germany, in Paris Texas and Paris France (you get my drift) will be collaborating.
    The goal will be the creation of knowledge. Of course, reading and writing and numeracy will matter, and there will be some rote learning, but the main challenge involves figuring out how to wrestle to the ground the flood of information and data that we live in, how to turn information into knowledge.
    That’s the new narrative…


    • “… but the main challenge involves figuring out how to wrestle to the ground the flood of information and data that we live in, how to turn information into knowledge.”

      I could not agree more with you on that front. This is/will be a huge challenge for years to come, and I think, a huge opportunity to amplify the role of teachers and principals..

      I also think that in the hype around new social and information technologies, we underestimate how much people/parents value “schooling” (to an actual physical place outside the home to be among peers) for socialization. This is rarely discussed among technology enthusiasts (and I count myself one).. Our polling indicates strong reluctance across all demographic groups toward virtual schools and online learning, and I believe this will be a persistent challenge for people/actors who promote educational technologies. This, to me, adds support for what you say regarding the need for physical schools as common meeting place for student learning.

      But I would still argue that a truly new narrative will require a reallocation of power from districts/boards to parents/families. The only reform policy that I know of that can fundamentally alter the political dynamics of education in a given jurisdiction is a school voucher system, or some variation. I believe school choice is a necessary condition to start building this new narrative.


  10. I’ve heard that if a city with an existing school system annexes an area with a school that they can take over that school. Specifically that Atlanta wants to annex Druid Hills so that they can absorb Fernbank and Druid Hills High School into APS. Does anyone know if this is true? Would it make sense for Decatur to take over a school by annexation?


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